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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Deer Lodge Is the Real Deal Food-Wise : Bikers kept the Ojai restaurant going strong for years. They still come for the barbecue, beer and atmosphere.

July 15, 1993|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a Sunday afternoon at barbecue time, if you're driving up Maricopa Highway heading north from Ojai, you'll see a place on the left side of the road, just on the edge of Meiners Oaks, with a bunch of big motorcycles in front.

If you think the bikes belong to yuppie cyclists out for their Sunday spin, think again.

The Deer Lodge is the real thing. And not only on Sunday afternoons.

True, you'll find a yuppie biker or two in the crowds on weekends, but their black T-shirts and tank tops are probably ironed and their beards may have been trimmed by the same Hollywood sort of guy who cuts Bill Clinton's hair.

The crowd that has kept this place going strong for years consists of guys--and women--who really do live with their bikes, and most of them are locals. These are guys who are good for the next round of drinks at the bar, for a game at one of the two pool tables on the wood-plank floor (many bring their own cues) or for the current local gossip.

The Deer Lodge is hospitable to visitors, but it is a true local hangout. At the end of the bar near the kitchen you'll often find two or three off-duty waitresses hanging around. Nearly everyone is on a first-name basis.

Decency prevents me from naming some of the drinks the bar crew has come up with over the years, but one afternoon I was tempted to try what the fellow next to me called an "Uh Oh"--it's Kahlua, Baileys Irish Cream and Tuaca, and it's down the hatch. No sip, sip, sipping for this crowd.

Very large quantities of beer get served at the Deer Lodge. Bud, Bud Light, Coors and Coors Light and Miller's Genuine are on tap, served in frosted mugs ($1.75 mug, $4.50 pitcher).

Along with the beer probably the best buy in the house is the large bay shrimp cocktail. It's true that the shrimp are overcooked, but they serve lots of them, in spicy cocktail sauce with lots of crunchy celery.

Whether you're eating at the bar, outside on the porch where you can watch the bikes come and go, or at a table in the dining room, the food here is generally best on a Sunday afternoon, when the outdoor barbecue is operating.

The meats are all par-boiled in the kitchen, then put on the grill for the last few minutes. For $5, you get a choice of chicken, ribs, a sirloin steak or a large hamburger, with all the fixings--beans and cole slaw and so on. The barbecue is supposed to start at 2, but the meat usually doesn't start off the grill until about 3.

With the jukebox in the corner doing its thing, or sometimes a live band in the dining room, the wails of country-Western or light rock only accentuate the moans of the guy at the bar who has been listening to the hefty couple across the way. They've been buying him drinks and bragging about having been married for 29 years. "That's all right for you," our apparently lonely friend says. "But right now, there ain't even no single women in here."

On the menu--yes, there is a menu here--breakfast is a big thing, especially on weekends. Though a fine value, the Country Breakfast ($3.95)--with three eggs, a choice of bacon, Louisiana hot links, ham or sausage links--tends to come out a little dry. But the biscuits and gravy that come along with it are right out of the South, thick and spicy.

On the lunch menu, you will do very well with the large Lodge Burger ($4.50), which comes with grilled onions, cheese and whole green chilies. The bun is large and soft, and the meat is a lot better than the dry, flavorless beef served on the French dip ($4.50).

Light food, such as packaged sandwiches and the shrimp cocktail, are available nearly anytime, but service from the menu stops at 2 in the afternoon.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Deer Lodge, 2261 Maricopa Highway, Ojai, 646-4256. Bar only on Tuesday and Wednesday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Bar and food available Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., Monday 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Full bar. No credit cards. Food for two, $3-$10.

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